A Word of Wisdom … showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days… In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days… And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make. (D&C 89)
Market demand is not the same as moral evaluation – and the production and consumption habits of the saints should conform to the latter rather than the former.
Up until the turn of the 19th century, the Chinese held a significant trade balance against the British. Chinese tea had become extraordinarily popular within the British Isles, but the Chinese refused to trade anything other than silver for their tea. The British, however, eventually solved their trade deficit with China by providing them with an even more addictive combination of American tobacco and Indian opium. By 1804 the trade deficit had reverse direction in favor of the British as opium addiction spread widely (50% of men and 25% of women) throughout China. This trade deficit along with the social effects of widespread addiction together led to a Chinese prohibition on the substance and, eventually, to the opium wars against the British (1839).
It is in this light, I suggest, that we ought to understand the importance of the Word of Wisdom (WoW). While we currently focus on the social effects of addictive stimulants, I would like to argue that the economic effects are at least as relevant. The British addiction to tea had given the Chinese so much economic power over them that the only way in which the British could reverse this power relation was through an even more addictive stimulant. Understood this way, the WoW can (and perhaps should) be understood as an economic boycott, and as such being much more pro-active in its moral intent than the passive “abstaining” from consuming various substances.
Before continuing, I must acknowledge that I am not the first to put an economistic spin on the WoW. While I had not known of its existence until after I had formulated my main thesis, Leonard J. Arrington formulated many, but not all of the central points that I wish to advance in this post. His paper is a fantastic source for statements by early church leaders regarding the economic intent behind the WoW. That said….
Section 89 declares itself to be protection for the saints against “conspiring men” and the “evils and designs” which exist in their hearts. I believe we can put a name on these conspiring men: The British East India Company (BEIC) and the international trade-market generally speaking. This company was THE reason why the British empire was so vast and so wealthy. It was their trade in three types of commodities, in particular, that were responsible for their vastly disproportionate wealth and power: luxury goods, slaves and stimulants. Indeed, it is not too great of an exaggeration to claim that a) these three types of goods were mostly acquired though international trade, and 2) that most international trade consisted of these three types of goods. In other words, supporting international trade and purchasing these three things were almost one and the same thing. While the WoW is primarily aimed at the purchase and consumption of stimulants, the highly interconnected nature of international trade meant that there was no way to entirely isolate trading in one of these types of goods from trading in the other two.
I thus wish to advance 6 theses in favor of an economic interpretation of the WoW. The first three will focus on the three types of trade mentioned above, arguing that they are each commodity types in which competition is most obviously not for the common good. The last three theses will focus more on interpreting the WoW within the context of the united order and its rejection of free-market capitalism.
- Luxury goods. While the defenders of the free market tend to focus on the benefits of allowing producers to compete with each other to better serve “the consumer”, it also introduces competition among consumers. This quest on the part of consumers for “conspicuous consumption” inevitably distorts the competition among producers, in that the latter will divert time, energy and resources to satisfying a consumer demand that has nothing at all to do with “needs” – to the extent that doing so is profitable. It is along these lines that we should understand Brigham Young’s thunderous denunciations of “lace” and other such luxury commodities. The BEIC held a very strong hold on the markets for silks, wines, dyes, spices, oils, porcelain and furs. These commodities served no function within the united order other than stratifying the “haves” above the “have-nots”. (See Justus Moser’s incisive criticisms regarding how the trade in luxury items tends to subvert traditional morals and social roles.)
- Slavery. The trading of African slaves lay at the very heart of the BEIC’s overseas trade. The mass production of cotton garments had been the industry that essentially started the industrial revolution, and the cotton supply for these garments came primarily from American slave plantations. The hypocrisy of this system became obvious when, in the same year the WoW was revealed, the British passed the anti-slavery act (it didn’t take effect until a couple years later), thus making it illegal to own slaves within the UK (with the notable exception of territories controlled by the BEIC). This act, combined with the division of responsibility (the shady flip-side of the division of labor) did nothing more than oblige many these merchants to “outsource” their slavery to the American South who continued to produce the same cotton, for the same merchants for pretty much the same price. The international trade thus allowed these merchants to morally condemn the very practice that they were supporting through trade. Calling each and every one of these merchants a “hypocrite”, however, is too simplistic due to the logic of the competitive market. Any cotton plantation that decided to rely upon rented (wage) labor rather than owned (slave) labor would quickly go under as the British merchants would then buy from the cheaper, slave-produced cotton. The same logic applies at the level of the British merchants, for any merchant that – for moral reasons – decided to only buy non-slave cotton would similarly go out of business. In this way, moral ideals became quite helpless in the face of the competitive slave-market.
- Stimulants. The third type of good which was sold within the transatlantic market was stimulants, including coffee, tea, wine, rum, tobacco and opium. It is not a coincidence that this list is almost an exact match for the WoW. As noted above, the BEIC had figured out that they could make enormous profits by trading in addictive stimulants for the simple reason that their addictive qualities made them compelling exceptions to the law of diminishing marginal utility. In other words, the more people consumed them, the more they demanded to consume them – thus ensuring a very stable and hugely inflated market for these merchants that had nothing whatsoever to do with the practical needs that these stimulants might legitimately serve. In a very real sense, the BEIC were the first drug-dealers, and no country was powerful enough to block their drug trafficking.
The three theses above are aimed at illustrating how the three types of goods that lay at the very heart of the international trade-market were a) morally dubious, b) clear examples of how the market is not “need-oriented”, c) tightly interconnected through the Atlantic Triangle trade-market and, as such, were d) collectively implicated by the WoW. To support one of these markets just was to support all of them, no matter how well the division of responsibility disguised this fact from our moral protests to the contrary.
The next three theses, by contrast, will be aimed at the reasons why the early saints were told to boycott the BEIC and the international trade-market, in general, within the context of the united order. Put differently, while the above is about the active boycott of various goods and people within the free-market, the following is about an active boycott of the free-market as such:
- An economic siphon. The early 19th century American economy was largely subsistence in nature, being geared toward agriculture and (at most) cottage industry that was traded at the local level. For this reason, local towns very closely mirrored the manorial villages of the medieval economy. The united order, then, was an attempt at creating one large, self-sufficient household (oikos) for the saints. Consequently, to purchase imported goods – and essentially all stimulants were imported – was to siphon money and goods out of the community in the exact same way that China had done to the British before the latter turned the tables on them. It is for this reason that Section 89 does not condemn drinking wine as such, but drinking imported It is this point that Arrington’s article really drives home.
- Economy independence. Financial dependence can enslave men or women far more than tea ever will. It is for this reason that the economic independence of the united order was the primary motive for the WoW, and not the psychological independence from addiction. Yes, drunkenness was, and always had been considered a sin, and the coming industrialization of would later lead many workers into the open arms of alcoholism, but these do not seem to have been what the WoW was about. Rather, it was about the saints collectively owning their own land and the products of their own labor without having to depend upon outsiders who might leverage their power and influence over them through economic means.
- The profit motive. While the socialists’ state-sponsored remedies to the ills of capitalism are totally contrary to the united order, their criticisms of capitalism are pretty spot on. One such criticism has always been that capitalism is organized according to the rational, self-interested pursuit of profit rather than the satisfaction of actual needs within one’s community or collective oikos. These free-market values are, of course, totally at odds with the united order. Instead, the united order more closely mirrored the collective reciprocity studied by Karl Polanyi than it did the self-interested exchange studied by Adam Smith (although Smith had nothing but contempt for the BEIC). The Korihorian doctrine that we should be able to consume whatever we can “earn” and “enjoy the rights and privileges” that correspond to our strength or genius just is the doctrine of the newly emerging money-market. It says that profits and rewards are achieved within the free-market rather than collectively distributed and morally ascribed within a moral community. Joseph Smith and Alma both condemned all such self-interested pursuits of profit by means of international (impersonal) trade.
To summarize, the WoW is an active rejection of the profit-motive and economic dependence that both lay at the heart of the international trade in stimulants. Even if one is inclined to reject to the united order in favor of free market trade (the early saints definitely did not endorse the latter), stimulants are as clear a case as any of how market demand and moral demand can be two very different and incompatible things. Furthermore, the international trade in stimulants was, in the early to mid-19th century, inextricably bound up with that of luxury goods and, worse still, slaves.
It is for these reasons that the WoW should be read as more than the passive refusal to indulge in stimulants for recreational purposes. Rather, it is an active boycott – a collective effort to realign, to the extent that it is possible, market demand with moral values.